During each major life event – both good and bad – people are very eager to feed you your emotions. Parenthood certainly made me aware of this, but my father’s death has made it more evident. People want to tell you exactly how you will feel. Maybe it’s their way of comforting you, but it actually sets up some potentially harmful (and outwardly false) expectations for yourself. Like if you don’t feel those particular things, then you’re broken. Something is wrong with you.
When you are pregnant and have a baby, you get two things:
“Parenting is the most wonderful journey ever! Enjoy every minute of it!”
“Remember to stock your cabinet with wine and grab your anti-depressants. Parenting is the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”
I’m here to say “Hi, everyone else’s experience. I really don’t give a crap about you!”
As my father’s illness progressed, I got a lot of “You will feel lonely when he’s gone.” “It will be really hard to be alone.” “There’s nothing worse than losing a loved one.” “You may never heal and it may never get easier.” “You will always feel an emptiness.”
What if I don’t actually feel any of those things? What if, in fact, I feel full of life and full of love and full of happiness? What if it has given me a strong sense of appreciation for my life as it is now? Does that mean I’m wrong? Does that mean I’m in denial? Does that mean I’m in shock? Does it mean that I’m selfish? Does it mean I didn’t really love my dad?
I wrote about my hospice experience on October 29th, two days before my father passed away. Watching someone being forced to give up on life mentally and physically was the most dreadful experience of my life. I was filled with a cocktail of emotions from crippling sadness and piercing anger to absolute helplessness and temporary self-loathing. I could’ve done more. I should’ve done more. I could’ve slowed down his inevitable death. I would leave my house to see him each day for the last month of his life with intense fear. What would I see when I arrive? Would he be in an upbeat mood after a great therapy session? Would he be crying in pain? Would he be mad at me when I encouraged him to try harder? Would he complain about how awful the food was and beg me for things he shouldn’t be eating? The amount of anxiety this created was borderline unbearable. It kept me up at night. It made me panic when I wasn’t with him. It made me question all I knew life to be. And as he begged for hospice, I couldn’t fathom a day when death would feel better than life. And when I was able to enjoy his company, all I wanted to do was freeze time. To hold that moment of watching TV together and talking about the show that was on. Hold that moment of showing him my most recent photo shoot. Hold that moment of talking about the kids or my own childhood memories. Just freeze a moment that reminded me that my father was one of my best friends. I mourned. I grieved. I cried constantly and was triggered by everything. As a non-believer, I constantly thought to myself “If this is it. If this life we’ve been given here on earth is it… is this enough?”
And now that he’s gone, I don’t feel how everyone said I would feel. I’ve started to think about new ways to word how we comfort our friends. How about this?
“You may feel something you never felt before, and that’s perfectly okay.”
“You may feel inspired to try something new, to experience a new aspect of life. Embrace that.”
“You may want to surround yourself with others, or you may want to go into temporary hibernation. Either one of those are your body’s way of coping.”
“You may feel relieved.”
Or how about – shocking revelation here – we just give a simple “Do you want to talk about how you feel?” and if that person wants to share her own thoughts and emotions at that time, you’ve opened that door to communication.
I keep questioning the fact that I feel pretty okay. I thought maybe it was because I had to celebrate Halloween with the kids. Then I thought maybe it was because I was so focused on the funeral arrangements. Then I thought maybe it was because I was surrounded by friends and family. And now I’m just starting to think that I’m going to be okay. The worst has passed. The worst was not being able to freeze time. The worst was not knowing when I’d say my last goodbye.The worst was not being able to understand the depth of one’s pain when he welcomes death. The worst was not knowing how death would look. Now that my dad has the peace he longed for, I think I feel okay. I know I’ll have rough times. I know I’ll miss all of the different ways we bonded, but knowing I cannot actually experience those moments ever again has made them feel even more special and meaningful. Even the times we just sat on the couch together chatting about a new recipe I tried or something he found at the thrift store. My dad’s never-ending stories of how eBay or PayPal messed something up. His retelling of the movie Dallas Buyer’s Club. Reliving all those moments in my mind just make me smile. I will treasure them forever and take his life as my inspiration to do more with my own.
This is how I want to mourn. With all my dad’s life and love at my side.